Written by therapist Elise Champanhet
“You’re lucky I’m feeling generous, because otherwise he would be on a plane back to France tonight.” That’s what the immigration officer at the airport told my husband and I as we came back into the country after Christmas abroad. Long story short, my husband did not have the typical visa of someone married to a US Citizen and that often confused immigration officers. I remember the pit in my stomach as we tried to get clarity from other immigration experts as to whether we had made a mistake. Whenever we would cross the border back into the US, we worried about what would happen if an officer thought my husband’s paperwork was wrong. Thankfully, things changed once he received his permanent residence. We know it was a huge privilege that we were able to obtain this status, but there is always a lingering anxiety about the next time we have to handle an immigration challenge. We also know that for many American families, immigration anxiety may never go away.
Many of the families I work with have experienced significant trauma that led to their decision to immigrate to the United States. These traumatic experiences can even impact the family for several generations after immigrating to the US. When you think about the number of immigrants in the US, many Americans are dealing either with current immigration trauma or generational trauma from the last 50-60 years.
I can’t pretend to know exactly how it feels to live as an undocumented person in the United States or wait years for visa paperwork to be finalized, however, I can understand the anxiety that comes with feeling like an outsider. As a therapist, I want to talk about some of the ways my family has coped with mental health challenges as immigrants.
Identifying Our Values
Generational trauma impacts our families in many ways. For many children of immigrants, navigating their dual identity can cause a lot of confusion between their life with family and their life the rest of the time. For my husband and myself, this has required that we spend a lot of time identifying our values and creating a life aligned with our values. This means that our life doesn’t always look the same as other members of our family. We accept that we have to make other decisions, but also do what we can to connect with our family. This may be more difficult depending on how different your values are from those of your family. If you are not sure how to differentiate between your values and your family’s values, a therapist can help you with this exploration process.
There are so many things about being an immigrant that are incredibly stressful. Waiting for visas, acculturation and assimilation processes, identity work, and the list goes on. All of these things can lead to identity confusion, stress disorders, anxiety, and/or depression if they are not dealt with. In many communities, coping mechanisms for stress are not a priority. I also recognize that many of the challenges immigrants face can make it nearly impossible to cope with stress. Some of the things that have helped us include trying to take one night a week to rest from work, prioritizing sleep, working with therapists, and building a support system to help us process our frustrations with the immigration process.
It is incredibly important to find people who understand your life as an immigrant, especially people who are in your current circumstances. When my husband and I were applying for his permanent residency, it was a huge relief to meet people who were going through the same challenges. It helped us feel less alone and gave us a place to process how impatient we were and how uncertain things felt. Without their support, I believe our mental health would have suffered significantly.
If you are a second generation American, it is important to find other people who understand your racial and cultural background. People who speak your parent’s language, who understand your traditions, and can help you navigate your life in America are so important. If you live in a part of the country where you feel alone, find support groups online where you can connect with people who have similar backgrounds. People who grew up the same way as you did can help you feel seen and heard in important ways. It is also important to have friends close to you that you feel safe talking about your concerns with, even if they may not understand your cultural background.
There are so many beautiful and complicated things about being an immigrant. If you find yourself struggling with finding the beautiful parts of your identity or coping with the stress of being an immigrant, a therapist can help! We will work together to identify your concerns and create coping strategies that work best for your circumstances.